Danielle Cadena Deulen has hit her stride and shows no signs of slowing. In a one-two punch, she has demonstrated her strength in prose and verse with recent successes in the awards circle. Her debut poetry collection, Lovely Asunder, was named The University of Arkansas Press 2011 Miller Williams Poetry Prize winner. This is on the heels of her 2010 AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction win with The Riots. The memoir was also a finalist for the 2011 Grub Street National Book Prize in Nonfiction and won the 2012 GLCA New Writers Award.
One might think Deulen was born with a lucky streak, yet the linked essays in The Riots prove otherwise. Instead, we see a vulnerable young woman grow from poverty, racial tension, and domestic abuse. Deulen explores the complexities and contradictions of class, race, and gender: she is half-Latina yet white in skin tone, grew up in a tough but middle class neighborhood, and is quicker to defend her sometimes criminal family than she is to defend herself. Throughout, Deulen seems both in charge of her determination yet powerless to change what life has allotted her. The result is a collection that encapsulates the awkwardness and discomfort of the author’s past, present, and future.
In the essays of The Riots—ranging from more formal framed narratives to scene snippets—the author just as swiftly demonstrates a glimpse of progress, as she stalls back into the same-old same-old, showing the tension between desire and internalized confinement. This anti-progress can make for a frustrating read; just when there is a hint of light, the dark again returns. Yet this is memoir. These are true stories, real defeats, and thus the author’s vulnerability and her life’s unfortunate events create empathy, if not sympathy, for her younger, troubled self.
Deulen, however, does not seek sympathy. She does not play martyr, even when candidly exposing her own and her family’s weaknesses. The author neither claims authority nor excuses herself from choices made, for better, for worse. The essays reveal a cautiously ambitious young woman who aches to break free from psychological and genetic chains yet still finds a manner in which to treat her family with respect. While there are injustices in the author’s childhood—a suicidal and abusive father and a few misbehaving members in her social circle—Deulen aims to quash her own judgment. She is fair in her observations, always compassionate in her depiction of others, as though she understands, knows, that appearances are not always what they seem, that a poor exterior life may reflect more of the broken, fragile interior than what we may initially jump to judge.
While Deulen shares a fair amount of evidence why we should not like her father, why we should in fact be angry with him for his jail time, his lack of presence, and for his physical and psychological abuse, the author treats him fairly. In “Apperture,” we catch a glimpse of a younger version of her father, a man who insisted on marrying the woman he loved—even though she was carrying another man’s child. Deulen depicts an impassioned young man determined to do right; yet this momentary stay of judgment is countered as the essay continues on to relive the physical abuse extended to her autistic brother by an impatient father who cannot hold a temper. The behavior is not excused, but Deulen reveals contributing factors of poverty and “cheap beer.” Again the author’s naiveté and vulnerability are admitted as she tries to make sense of circumstances, noting her brother’s instigation and admitting the “undertones of fault” she hears herself repeating, failing to find justification for her father’s actions.
Deulen can be hard on herself in these essays. She examines chaos up close and personal and tries, perhaps beyond the point of necessity, to find reason in her life. In her reflections on family, the author aims—admitting inadequacy—to offer a full portrait of the chaos around her. Yet in the title essay, Deulen offers a glimpse of observation and reflection on Rodney King and the L.A. riots, noting how “outside of the frame we see nothing.” The author knows that a full-dimensional view outside of the self is impossible, inaccurate. This is her point, and her point of frustration. One can never really see an entire picture. How we choose to act and react to what goes on around us—and what we can’t fully know—is what constitutes our character and, indeed, the author’s character.
In “Theft,” Deulen debates truth and perception. In one of the retellings of a family story, her mother recounts their heritage and how a great-great-great-grandmother was swept off her feet when a Castilian nobleman came to town. The mother treats the tale as a love story; Danielle counters, arguing, “If he was a conquistador, he probably raped her and caller her his wife after.” The distinctions between fact and fiction are dismissed by the mother, arguing that if there is a more pleasant side of the story, “why not believe the more beautiful version?” At a standstill, the author recants, recognizing that when a story is told enough, it is no longer a lie but a myth, morphed into something else.
The juxtaposition of interior and exterior truths, perceptions, and lives is dominant in The Riots. Deulen gives equal weight to both sides of violence, all sides of poverty, and continually demonstrates her hunger for escape—while still clinging to her roots. The vulnerability is palpable, as demonstrated in “Theft”:
…I’d stolen enough food for the week, but now it’s all gone. When I started, I was careful to take only as much as I needed. But excess leads to excess. It’s a kind of sickness to always feel lack—eats away at my mind.
No, Danielle Cadena Deulen was not born lucky. Yet The Riots provide a comfort, an example of how even in darkness, there may be light.
Lori A. May writes across the genres and reviews for publications including Los Angeles Review and Rattle. A Canadian expat, she now lives in Michigan and online at www.loriamay.com.
Danielle Cadena Deulen
University of Georgia Press, 2011
$24.95 hardcover, ISBN: 978-0-8203-3883-5